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Secretary Esper Press Conference With Admiral Craig Faller

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining me here today along with Admiral Faller, and my first visit as secretary of defense to U.S. Southern Command. It's a historic -- this is not my first visit to Southern Command. Actually, had a chance to first visit it when I was a young lieutenant in the Army, 1989, when the command was located in Panama.

So it's good to be back. Since that time, I've traveled to the region numerous times. And certainly, in my role as secretary of defense, I've had the chance to meet with many of my counterparts, or talk with many of my counterparts in the region, I've had very good conversations.

It's a very important theater to the United States, a number of important missions. I had the chance, today, to review that with Admiral Faller and his team. That was helpful, to have his commanders here on the ground to walk me through their respective commands and their missions. It was a good discussion. 

As many of you know, that the -- my -- the number one thing I'm trying to do is to implement the National Defense Strategy. That strategy calls for the United States to build a greater lethality and readiness in an era of great power competition with our adversaries or competitors, such as China and Russia. 

Secondly, it calls for us to build greater alliances and strengthen our partnerships. And I know the command is doing that with many countries on the ground in Latin America. 

And, third, because it calls us to reform, time, money and manpower, to push into our top priorities and into our National Defense Strategy (inaudible). So we had to discuss that today as well. 

All in all, a very good visit. We have more to go this afternoon. And let me say (inaudible) down here, and I'm lucky to come here, to travel to the region and hear my discussions with many of my defense partners in the region. 

So with that, I'll turn it over to Admiral Faller for additional comments. 

ADMIRAL CRAIG FALLER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to come here and -- and to listen to the opportunities that this hemisphere presents. It's our neighborhood, with shared values at the top of that list, but we share domains here, air, land sea, space and cyber, all the areas that we work together to build stronger defense for our nation. 

We also talked about the challenges, the vicious circle of threats that have young democracies and emerging institutions that China and Russia are right in there, so a great power competition and (inaudible) throughout this theater.

We talked about our response to those threats and strong partnerships in line with the National Defense Strategy. Colombia, one of our key partners, as we speak, are preparing for an airborne exercise that will exercise the capabilities, prove our interoperability and our unity and come closer in terms of what we look at in the future in strengthening defense of both the United States and our partners. 

So thanks again for taking the time down here.

SEC. ESPER: So we'll take any questions? 

STAFF: First question, NBC -- or ABC.

Q: This is (inaudible), good morning, I should say. What do you perceive to be the biggest single threat, based on the U.S. now in Latin America and in the Caribbean as well? 

The second part is, what's the long-term plan to ease tensions and dealing with issues that face Venezuela and Cuba? Obviously two big issues here in South America.

SEC. ESPER: (inaudible) strategy, our National Defense Strategy, which has been in place now for a couple years. For me, the biggest challenge is preparing for this era of great power competition, and how to (inaudible) over (inaudible) years.

So the challenge that we have, not just in this command but in many others, is making sure that we are building those partnerships, strengthening those alliances, enhancing those capabilities that we view as critical to all of us in the future. So that's one. 

But also, we have other challenges. We have drug interdiction, a major challenge with Venezuela, and so it's a country led by a corrupt regime, an illegitimate government. And I think we can deal with that too. But today it’s implementation of the National Defense Strategy.

STAFF: (inaudible)?

Q: Thanks. 

Mr. Secretary, obviously, next year, the review. Can you just give us a sense of the timeline for when that's starting, when that might be complete, and given the China and Russia influence in the region, realistically, is there any way that you can see assets, which SOUTHCOM has very few of at the moment, have being moved in the region to go elsewhere?

And for Admiral Faller, all on the same lines, we've heard that additional maritime assets were particularly helpful with something like counterdrug operations, particularly also with Venezuela. Is that something that you're asking for?

SEC. ESPER: So, first of all, in terms of timeline, I don't put a timeline on these things necessarily. I think it depends on how they evolve. It's iterative -- iterative, as it has been with AFRICOM. 

My next session with AFRICOM is tomorrow. It will be as well with SOUTHCOM, and so we just work through it day by day. I think today was the kickoff day, where we had a good discussion, went over the map, talked about missions, went through a number of different things to discuss that. 

If I had to put an end date, I want to make sure that we're in some type of better posture by the beginning of the next fiscal year, so I want to move fairly quickly, if you will. 

Now, on the second part of your question, everybody always assumes that when we talk reviews, it means reduction. Not necessarily. That's one of the things -- notions I've been trying to dispel. 

What I've talked about is, making sure that we have a proper footprint to implement the National Defense Strategy, whether it's in this command or any other command. And so while we may mean right sizing, this also could mean the addition of forces into a region, if we need them. 

We talked about that. So -- and capabilities, and any other type of resources needed. So that's how I'm looking at this, I don't -- it's -- it doesn't mean a reduction, everywhere -- I have spoken to the fact that I want to do a couple things (inaudible), either return forces to the United States to improve their readiness, or reposition forces in the Indo-Pacific, to deal with our long-term strategic challenge. 

One of the benefits of returning forces to the United States to improve their readiness, is they become freed up to do what I've talked about, dynamic force deployments in other parts of the world, this being one of them. 

And I think the exercise we're doing in the coming days is an example of dynamic force deployment. That's what I'm looking forward to in the future, with regard to right-sizing -- with regard to how we deploy our forces' capabilities to support our friends, our allies and our National Defense Strategy.

Admiral Faller, do you want to add?

ADM. FALLER: I have stated that we are short in intelligence and naval platforms for the counter-narcotics fight, which is really a transnational criminal organization fight. 

But I also want to talk about the need for full-court pressure. So from economics to the strength of the United States, so that everything needs to happen to pressure -- to make an impact on these criminal organizations that then cause them to deter -- be deterred or defeated aggressively. 

And we're working with our partners on that. I would like to note that our partners, Colombia, Panama and El Salvador -- just to name three -- were involved in 50 percent of the interdictions. So we think it's as important as getting more assets, is getting partners more in the game. And we have a plan to do that. Thank you.

SEC. ESPER: I’m just gonna add one thing to that comment. I think in all of our approaches, I think about the national security strategy. Now, it requires a whole-of-government approach. And I think in this theater in particular, maybe more than any other, it requires that approach. 

And so, today, when I got briefed up, we had in the room not only the four services, but also the Coast Guard, which plays a very important role here. We had one of your deputies is from the State Department, so I -- this is one theater in particular where I think we really require a whole-of-government approach. 

STAFF: Haley?

Q: Yes. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about the recent report from Human Rights Watch. They're very concerned about the increased criminal activity at the border of Colombia and Venezuela, including terrorist groups. (inaudible)

Are those military exercises that you're beginning today in Colombia including helping the Colombian authorities to protect the border from this activity?

SEC. ESPER: Well, first of all, I haven’t read the Human Rights Watch report, so I won’t comment on it. Let me say this much. The purpose of our exercises is to build interoperability, understanding, cohesiveness between the United States and our partner forces. 

 I'll let Admiral Faller add any detail, but that's what we're trying to do in all these exercises we conduct. In any type of training what we do is build that capacity, build that capability with our partners. 

ADM. FALLER: The best way to deter or defeat any of these threats is with these partnerships, their capacity and ours helps both secure the U.S. and partners. So that's the first response, and that's (inaudible) secure that.

In terms of what’s happening in Venezuela, as the secretary mentioned, its illegitimate government that is destroying the fabric of society. It's becoming a safe haven. So it's a fact that FARC, the ELN, and terrorists groups in narco-trafficking are using it as a base of opportunity. 

And Maduro and his cronies and his propped-up military that surrounds him are benefitting from that kind of people. 

Q: (inaudible) A new caravan is coming from Mexico, is there any plan for criminal activities, taking advantage of this tragedy? 

SEC. ESPER: I didn't hear the first part of the question. Can you say that again? 

Q: Is there a new caravan coming from Central America, in Mexico.

SEC. ESPER: Well, you know, the DOD has an important homeland security mission. We fulfill that in support of the Department of Homeland Security. And I haven't gotten any updates on the status of that, but obviously we remain willing to support the Department of Homeland Security as they see, you know, things arriving from the south or Mexico or wherever the case may be. 

STAFF: Tara Copp, McClatchy?

Q: What are the department's plans for a Venezuelan government that continues to have Maduro at its head for the short term, maybe even into the long-term future? How do you contain that? 

SEC. ESPER: What was the first part of the question again? 

Q: So is it, was it -- the department's assessment that Maduro is likely to stay in power in the short term and possibly the long term? And if so, what are the department's strategies or ideas on how to contain and – continue to help the people of Venezuela?

SEC. ESPER: Sure. But we'll see what happens, we're continuing to put a lot of pressure on the regime economically and diplomatically, as you are aware. We will continue that. We think that the best path forward is through those paths, if you will. 

My job as secretary of defense is to enable those activities. And so I think the sooner that the people of Venezuela are rid of this corrupt regime, the better that they will be for sure, and the better the region and the hemisphere will be. So I think we want to continue to enable those efforts by, um, that are being conducted by the State Department or Treasury, to make sure we can accelerate that as quickly as possible. That is the best path forward. 

And with regard to planning, we always do planning on many different things, and we would be prepared in the post-Maduro regime, to support the people and the new government of Venezuela, with humanitarian assistance and whatnot. 

Q: Admiral, based on what you're seeing at the command, do you think it is likely that Maduro will be -- remain in power in the short term? 

ADM. FALLER: Our focus has been on intelligence-sharing, planning, working with our partners to assess the impacts that the instability's having. You just talked about FARC and ELN. 

I don't do predictions, I think it would be off if I did. But for the people of Venezuela, the transition to a legitimate government -- and for the region, can't happen soon enough. 

STAFF: Thank you, gentlemen. 

Thank you, everybody. That concludes our...

SEC. ESPER: Thank you all very much. Have a good day.